Dear Esther

(This is what me gushing about a work I love looks like.)

I don’t know that I’ve ever had quite so extreme an emotional reaction to a video game.

I’m also not really sure how to start the review. To tell you anything about it is to tell you about the story, and Dear Esther IS the story, and its beauty is in the way it builds its narrative and carries you along. To give insight into what happens is to disturb the delicate situation the game creates, and I don’t want to do that.

To call Dear Esther a “game” is something of a misnomer– there’s no competition or reward system you associate with a typical video game. Indeed, it’s much closer to a visual novel than to any other genre, but it’s not quite that, either, because it lacks the “choose-you-own-adventure” element that define VNs. In Esther, the story is already written; you don’t write it, you experience it. It happens to you and you’re affected by it.

The game (for lack of a better term) has three controls: You can move around with the arrow keys, zoom in a little by right-clicking, or “swim up” by pressing Q. All you do, in the strict sense, is walk. You walk, and the story happens to you– or better, is encountered by you– and you are completely swept up in it.

The scenery in this game is gorgeous. It is perhaps the most intricate and beautiful art I’ve ever seen in this medium, and it’s not limited to specially-detailed cutscenes like in most games. There were several points in my playthrough where I just stopped and looked. Phosphorescent caves, cascading waterfalls, clouds hanging low over the sea– sometimes, Boyfriend would say to me, “Wait, I just want to look,” and we’re sit and stare at the wall of the cave for a few minutes because it was incredible. We took turns saying, “Wow.” When I saw the trailer, I couldn’t quite decide if it was animation interspersed with real video or what. It’s just animation, and it’s the quality of the entire game.

I honestly don’t think screenshots could do it justice. I actually think it’s best experienced in a room with the lights turned off as a moving thing, and intend to play it in the dark on my next gothrough.

The trailer is weird, and it’s some British guy talking in somewhat tortured metaphor as the camera pans over the scenery. It tells you nothing about the game, or what it’s about, or what it’s point is. That’s because it can’t, for the same reasons I outlined.

So here’s how it plays, to the best of my ability without giving anything away:

It’s first person. You are British Guy. You open on an island, with a monologue. And you walk. You follow a path down a ridge from the island’s lighthouse. In the distance is the flashing red light of some kind of cell-tower type thing. It’s there, so you head toward it, because your instinct tells you to. Which is genius, actually. That’s what you have to do, and it never really occurred to me (or boyfriend) to do anything else. Without consciously making the decision, we were saying, “Wait, where’s that red light? We need to keep heading toward it.” The game never tells you that’s where to go. In fact, it never tells you anything at all. You just explore, but you always head toward the light because humans are funny like that.

As you walk along this breathtaking scenery, more monologues are triggered. They are triggered by entering certain locations, and in some instances, which one shows up is random– you have to play through multiple times to see each one. As you trigger monologues by walking the island, slowly and steadily, the story unfolds. And it quickly becomes evident that it is a ghost story (I saw the game described somewhere as “A first-person ghost story,” and that’s very accurate). However, what kind of ghost story– and who the ghost is– is murky. You often see black shapes far in the distance, but your sightlines are always obscured just as you reach them, and you when can see again, they’re gone.

The whole thing is scary in a subtle, sneaking, unnerving way. I found myself scared without strictly knowing why– this isn’t a game where something is going to pop out at you, and it’s not actively trying to scare you, but you can’t help it. Like going toward the light, it’s natural. A deep unsettled feeling creeps in, takes, hold, and won’t let go. “Go look in that house,” Boyfriend said, but I didn’t want to. I had no idea why, what I was expecting to be there– this isn’t a game with any blood or corpses– but there was a lurking ambiance of unrest at all times.

So you walk. And with each step, more becomes clear– why you’re on the island, who was there before you, and whether or not you intend to leave. Each monologue provides answers and riddles.

As we finally reached the light, and took the final ascent toward it, I cried. Like the fear, it was slow and steady but, for me, unavoidable (though even if you’re not a crier like me, you have to be moved). As you take those final steps, you know what’s going to happen. You’ve known all along. And you don’t know if you want to see it through or not. But you have no choice.

Frankly, I thought this game was a masterpiece. It was starkly original in its way of telling its story. Some players bitched and moaned about the “lack of interactivity” and how it didn’t actually qualify as a real game, and they’re idiots. This story could not have been so effectively told in any other medium, and if you can’t appreciate that it wasn’t meant to be a book or movie but a video game, you don’t know enough about storytelling to be making these kind of judgements.

This isn’t a game, it’s a story. And like any good story, it affects you. Profoundly. It leaves you feeling it in your bones, thinking about it after the final fade-to-black, and leads you to writing essays about it on the internet. Boyfriend and I just sat there and stared at a black screen for several minutes before I looked at him with tears streaming down my face and just said, “Wow.” “Wow,” he agreed.

This is on sale on Steam right now (February 27) for less than $3. I highly, highly recommend it. I want to give them more money for that experience. Boyfriend bought it, and I may go buy it again on my own Steam account just to have it.

The game in total took us about 70 minutes to go through, and I HIGHLY recommend setting aside the time to play it in one sitting. I think it really demands that. You also can’t save the game, but it is divided up into four “chapters,” and once you reach a chapter you can go back to it at any time.

I certainly intend to go do more playthroughs, because I need the rest of the pieces. But I need a few days before I do that to myself again. I may just see if someone has typed up all the tidbits so I don’t have to cry like a toddler at the ending again (because I will, because I’m a girl sometimes).

Now, I’ll go back to cynically hating every piece of art that passes through my person.

6 Comments

  1. Farla says:
    This sounds like exactly what I love about horror games. I’ll check it out.
  2. antialiasis says:
    Hm.

    I just played through this game, but I wasn’t overly enamoured with it, to be honest. It was gorgeous to look at and extremely atmospheric and immersive, but the story fragments just didn’t really come together to make much sense, and that made it hard to have enough of a grasp on the narrator’s situation and what was generally going on for the ending to have much in the way of emotional impact, to me – all I really got out of it was “wow, this guy is nuts”. I worried there might have been places I missed as I was going around the island or something, resulting in me missing vital pieces of the puzzle, but poking around on the Internet, other players seem equally confused.

    1. actonthat says:
      Missed this.

      Really? I found it confusing at first, but I felt like I was able to figure everything out by the end– I actually really liked the way it came together piece by piece. Part of that could be that I got lucky– a bunch of the story snippets are random, and my playthrough may have coincidentally been rather coherent. My after-game internet parousal mostly ended with me confirming my guesses.

      (Boyfriend felt like he got it, too, so it may be that we did just get all the important stuff.)

      1. Farla says:
        After playing it and reading the wiki, I think there’s some snippets that are more important than others to making sense of things. In the first section I heard a lot of stuff referencing hermits and boats without a bottom but not the actual snippet of the hermit who came on a boat without a bottom that the rest of them are referring to.
        1. actonthat says:
          Hm, interesting. I don’t really know what the randomness was supposed to add; possibly they just wrote too many and had to find a way to include all of them. Did you like the game as a whole or did you find the random snippets too jarring?
          1. Farla says:
            I quite liked them, even the ones I couldn’t make too much sense of initially. I do think it’d have been better to either include all the snippets or else have some setup where it’s only semi random so that certain lynchpin ones always appeared. Maybe even stick more in so there’s a couple variants of the lynchpins, like with the guy’s frozen corpse, but set so at least one of them always appears in a playthrough. I’d really prefer all of them, since the game is long enough that playing it enough times to actually hear them all seems difficult, but they’re so much stronger actually hearing them in the game than reading them on a wiki.

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